Robert Frank's Narrow View on Schools
By David Henderson
When I posted on Facebook a link to my recent blog post and book review [scroll down to the third page] of Robert Frank’s latest book, a George Mason University economist friend wrote, “David, your critique is spot on, but he [Frank] won’t engage them, nor will his views reflect them in five years.” So far, this friend is right. Of course, five years isn’t close to being up yet but Robert Frank has certainly not engaged. And his op/ed in the New York Times today shows no evidence that he has reconsidered one of his most tenuous bits of thinking.
In his NYT op/ed today, he writes:
Why do many middle-class families now struggle to get by on two paychecks, whereas most got by on just one back in the 1950s and ’60s?
The answer, according to “The Two-Income Trap,” by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, is that many second paychecks today go toward financing a largely fruitless bidding war for homes in good school districts.
Parents naturally want to send their kids to good schools. But quality is relative. Because the best schools tend to be those serving expensive neighborhoods, parents must outbid 50 percent of other parents with the same goal just to send their children to a school of average quality.
Here’s what I wrote in my review about two other solutions to the problem. He seems not to have considered either:
Why do people have to buy nice houses to get nice schools? It’s because government provides schools. Governments insist, with few exceptions, that the only people allowed to attend schools in a school district are the children who live in that district. Private schools, by contrast, rarely discriminate geographically. A straightforward way to get around this wasteful competition for houses in nice school districts is to get government out of the business of providing schools. But Frank does not consider that option.
Frank states that “school quality is an inherently relative concept.” In other words, what matters to parents, according to Frank, is not the absolute quality of the school, but how good it is relative to other schools. But if that’s so, then one obvious way to save resources, so that people can have more non-positional goods, is for the government to spend less on schools. Just as a progressive consumption tax would, in Frank’s view, make no rich people worse off, a 50 percent cut in school funding should make no students worse off. Yet Frank never considers cutting government spending on schools.